Judaism and Psychedelics

Psychedelics have become a regular news item, to the delight of the initiated. In Jewish circles, interest is also intensifying, as evidenced by events like the 2021 Jewish Psychedelic Summit, and by newly-emerging organizations such as Shefa, a non-profit dedicated to Jewish psychedelic support.

But for those unfamiliar with psychedelic substances, this news has many feeling anywhere from curious to uneasy. What are these psychedelics that people are talking about? Are they dangerous, as some warn, or cure-alls, as others tout? And why should we, as Jews, care?

The word psychedelics is used generally to refer to a class of substances that alter one’s perceptions for an intense, but limited, period of time. New research suggests great promise that psychedelics might be effective in treating depression, anxiety, PTSD, eating disorders, addiction and more. In recent years, the FDA granted fast-track status to two substances in particular, MDMA (known on the street as Molly or Ecstasy) and Psilocybin (the active ingredient in magic mushrooms), because of their extraordinary efficacy in treating PTSD and depression, respectively. MDMA-assisted psychotherapy appears on track to be legalized as a medical treatment for PTSD next fall (2024)[1]. Meanwhile Psilocybin and other plant-based medicines have been decriminalized in several localities across the United States, enabling access at will.

As a class of medicines, psychedelics have shown themselves to be generally safe and effective. They are pro-social, meaning people who take them tend to grow more interested in positive social interaction. They are also non-habit forming because they are physiologically, non-addictive. Many people use psychedelics to expand their minds, deepen their appreciation for spiritual connections, and expand their sense of belonging and interconnectedness.

When I hear people touting psychedelics as a panacea, I grow uneasy. These are powerful medicines that require respect; they are not for everyone. Those who use them without practicing basic safety hygiene, risk having a bad experience or outcome. Giving attention to mindset (known as ‘set’ in the psychedelic world), and environment (known as ‘setting’), along with finding a trustworthy sitter and checking with an informed medical provider (certain substances are contra-indicated for people on SSRIs, for example), can maximize the likelihood that you’ll have a good, maybe even a great experience and outcome.

How is this relevant to Jews? To address this question, I’d like to share my own experience with psychedelics, and suggest some potential directions for our collective future.

I am nearly 60 years old. The first 55 years of my life were virtually drug-free, save for enjoying kiddush wine with Friday night dinner. But three years ago, when I left a full-time job at the start of Covid, I seized the opportunity to intensify the healing journey that I had pursued since my teenage years.

I had suffered on and off from depression, anxiety, social anxiety and other symptoms my entire life. I was plagued by frightening, inchoate dreams. About ten years ago, I was diagnosed with complex trauma, or CPTSD. While I’d been served well by my industriousness, ambition and skills in looking “normal,” I often felt miserable inside, berating myself after social interactions for having been so awkward, deriding my work as inferior, and then, to cope with this constant, negative drumbeat, overscheduling myself so that my daily busy-ness drowned it out.

Although psychotherapy and numerous other practices lessened my symptoms, I started using psychedelics as a means of addressing my diagnosis. I prepared extensively, researching thoroughly and crafting my set and setting. I paired my experience with therapy, and the results were astonishing.

My life has been transformed. Since I began working with these substances, I’ve grown more comfortable in my own skin. My crippling social anxiety has melted away. My thinking has flipped from pessimism (the world is a dangerous, dark place) to optimism (everything is going to be okay). I have learned what trust and safety feel like in the body, and relish doing activities that reinforce that feeling—yoga, nature walks, davening—instead of having to force myself. For the first time in my life, feeling good feels good.

Based on my experience, I’ve realized that the implications of psychedelics for the larger Jewish world are significant. For one, many of us carry woundedness and even trauma, which psychedelics can help us process. While psychedelics can’t erase life’s harms, they can open pathways for reckoning with them, and help us emerge wiser, more contented and better able to help others who suffer.

Psychedelics do more than address woundedness, trauma and suffering. They are also mind-expanding substances that can open us to the interconnectedness of all things. I am not suggesting that psychedelics are the only path to higher consciousness. Generations of spiritual masters have attained glimpses of the holy via prayer, study, and other non-psychedelic means. However, these substances can make the pathway of spiritual ascent more accessible to many.

Finally, psychedelics can enhance our creativity and motivation for bringing new forms of Jewish thought and practice into the world. Prominent rabbis like Reb Zalman Schachter-Shalomi and Rabbi Art Green, who used psychedelics in the 1960s and ‘70s, went on to play significant roles in developing the Havurah movement, the Jewish Renewal movement, and the creation of two Jewish seminaries, the ALEPH Ordination Program and Hebrew College. Rabbi Shefa Gold, who has taught chant, meditation and spiritual community-building for decades, said in her 2021 invocation for the Jewish Psychedelic Summit, “Under the influence of psychedelics, I was given a profound glimpse of a larger Reality. … That glimpse of a larger Reality sent me on a journey of discovery, healing, [and] adventure….”[2]

Psychedelics are showing themselves to be safe, creativity-enhancing, wellness promoting substances that may well play a transformative role in Judaism itself. At the very least, we owe it to ourselves to remain open and curious to their hidden gifts.

Rabbi Aura Ahuvia founded The Psychedelic Rabbi in 2023, after her own explorations showed her the powerful healing capacities of plant-based medicines. Her practice helps people transform their lives through spiritual growth, personal development and healing. Ordained at ALEPH: Alliance for Jewish Renewal as both rabbi and spiritual director, Rabbi Aura served five years as President of the ALEPH Board. As a student, she co-founded the Ann Arbor Reconstructionist Havurah, and has since worked in pulpits in Ann Arbor, MI, Woodstock, NY, Troy, MI and San Francisco. A gifted guitarist and singer, Rabbi Aura offers concerts as well as speaking events. You can find her at www.PsychedelicRabbi.com.

[1] See most recent announcement here: https://www.forbes.com/sites/benjaminadams/2023/12/15/maps-applies-for-fda-approval-of-mdma-assisted-therapy-for-ptsd/?sh=592baa4f29da. For more background, also see: https://www.nytimes.com/2023/09/14/health/mdma-ptsd-psychedelics.html.

[2] https://www.rabbishefagold.com/invocation-jewish-psychedelic-summit/

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